I started working on this post some time ago, and it’s sat languishing in my drafts folder. I decided I needed to finish it after reading Why Kodak Died and Fujifilm Thrived: A Tale of Two Film Companies. I loved the articles analysis which broke down the disruptive innovation narrative. At the heart of it, it was Kodak’s lack of diversification that condemned the firm to its fate.
The Kodak story is one of the founding myths of Innovationism. It is foundational to supporting the notions of disruptive innovation and Silicon Valley, as I said:
The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.
Earlier this year I read a document that described this point in time as our “Kodak Moment” in Higher Education. Not the kind of moment you want to preserve forever, but one of those inflection points where the decisions we make now will determine our future. That insight is both thrilling and foreboding. How you approach this inflection point has to do with how you interpret history. So below I’ve outlined my “Kodak Moments”, those inflection points that I see Higher Education needing to address. And for no extra cost I’ll throw in some free suggestions for what we could do as an alternative to doubling down on a faster, better film processor.
Confusing what you do for how you do it.
At some point the mission at Kodak got confused and it began to conflate what it did with how it did it. As a company it helped people create memories on film. The “help people create memories” was the what, and the “on film” was the how and somewhere along the way the two became one. In doing so it narrowed the vision so that Kodak became incapable of thinking about itself beyond film. The comparison with Fujifilm suggests that part of their survival was that they unpacked what they did at a much deeper level. They didn’t just capture memories, they had industrial process and manufacturing that could be applied to other industries.
Higher Education seems to be in a similar position. It doesn’t seem capable of articulating what it does. Perhaps it’s because each institution has, and should, have its own unique service to offer. I think all should start with “Helping people …” because it helps define them as a public service, but what comes next isn’t so obvious. What’s strange though is the uniformity of how, across institutions right around the world – a structured program of courses running between 12-14 weeks each. That’s it. That’s the how for higher education and it can’t (or it won’t) think beyond that.
Tip 1: Change the How
If you want innovation in Higher Education then go after the how. The iPod didn’t change what music was, it changed how we listed to it. The iPhone didn’t change what computers did, it changed how they were accessed. The internet didn’t change what information was available, but it certainly revolutionised how we access and share it. If Higher Education wants to innovate it needs to rethink how it does things. Start with how we structure “learning” and rethink the agricultural timetable we seem stuck with as the only model for delivery. Then you can think about how we’re funded, how we engage students, how we engage our communities and how we will create sustainable models of education into the future.
A Lack of Diversity creates Fragility
Kodak relied on income from a small number of sources. Any products Kodak offered were really about bringing people back into using their core product – printing photos. Fujifilm on the other hand diversified their income through product expansion and investments into other areas, which was key to their success when the downturn in film started to bite.
Higher Education is just like Kodak and is incredibly fragile. It relies too heavily on just one product – degrees. Those bits of paper are really what it boils down to, the one product that provides the “rivers of gold”. And considering that there’s very little difference in the how you get those bits of paper you can start to see my concern with Higher Education.
There is no real product differentiation in Higher Education. Sure you can choose different logos and locations but that’s about it. It is a globally saturated market and you have universities around the world teaching the same way for the same outcome. It’s no wonder that every man and his dog in Silicon Valley is queuing up to disrupt the sector – it is ripe for disruption. What has saved education so far is that it’s more complicated than it looks, not the robustness of the existing paradigm.
Tip 2: Focus on Learning
Education has become a product rather than a public good and a civic duty. It’s been Taylorised and Skinner Boxed, quantified and analysed. Learning went from an innately human trait to something that is pathologised. A condition that can be measured, treated and made more effective through Deliverology.
Bring the focus of the institution back to learning. We need real product differentiation and that means rethinking the degree as a product. In a saturated market you can’t simply improve – better, cheaper, faster – it’s just not enough. You must evolve the market. Provide something new but also meaningful. Engage people in more meaningful ways, inject learning into the everyday rather than something you need to take a vacation from life to do. Improving the specs won’t facilitate the change that’s required.
Tip 3: Focus on Connective Spaces
The other thing I wanted to mention here is the University Campus. Some of the most beautifully kept and under utilised places on the planet. Universities are still stuck on their establishment based on exclusivity rather than their establishment for a public services. They seem stuck on excluding their communities, from engaging with them and inviting them to be part of something bigger. Universities aren’t shared spaces despite their prominence within their communities.
Utilise the campus better. Make them available to the public. Host services, build parks and paths and places to explore. Get your community in there and being part of the space. Offer fee for services – get library access, pool and gym passes, sporting fields, meeting rooms and video conferencing. Use the university to be a connective space, not an exclusive one. Demand that research serve local purposes and serves the local community first. Bind yourself to the community you’re in rather than pretending you’re not a part of it.
The Debt Generation
One of the often overlooked facts is that the success of Kodak led to an overload of artefacts. People now had albums full of memories, ones that they barely looked at. In order to attain those memories you were required to invest time, money and space. Kodak had created debt through abundance, that people now had to give something up in order to have memories. This helped create the perfect conditions for an alternative that offered to reduce those factors, to lessen the debt. Early digital photography had technical deficiencies but it was attractive to many users – real time review of photos, easy editing to fix red eye and wonky framing and the simple fact that you could delete photos you didn’t want. What digital photography provided was real world value, one that bypassed the debt incurred through film. By providing that real world benefit they looked past the shortcomings of the technology. It made their users better, made their lives easier and you once you have that you have the momentum to change the market.
I’m not sure I’m can see the real world benefit in Higher Education anymore. Yes education is important, as are our memories, but the level of personal and financial debt required to attain an education today has reached a tipping point. We are at the point where most students have to work in order to study, and I’m talking working at a level close to full time hours rather than a shift or two on the weekend. But have the universities rethought how they teach, how they asses, when they offer classes? Have they given much through to these constraints that students now operate under? Has the bureaucracy changed in anyway? No they plough on with the same how, the same 12-14 week program. The same forms and administrivia in order to get extensions or access services still apply. Sure you can learn online these days, but the courses tend to be designed to force you through content, is that a really attractive off? Is that worth paying money for? Is it worth more than a textbook? Is it worth paying for on top of the text book? Is the piece of paper worth it?
Tip 4: Think Financially
Universities really have to come to the table around the financial viability of what they are offering. Most universities charge the same for online courses as they do for on campus. Many degrees cross subsidise other degrees from the more expensive disciplines, but is that fair on the students? Most courses are structured to get access to government funding, but could they be funded in other ways? Could fees and debt be accumulated in other ways? Could students work with and for the university in order to pay for their tuition?
Universities need to have a dialogue around the broader financials of study, not just the bottom line of their operations. If you fail to do this students will walk, taking their money with them. This isn’t something they’ll tell you about or signal in any way, they just won’t come any more – that’s what we do when we make a financial decision. Engage your students, think differently about how this works, for lack of a better phrase – think outside the box.
A Brand Buys Recognition, not Loyalty
A lot is made about the strength of Kodaks name and position in the market. They were the dominant force globally, They had a great brand. But a brand isn’t the same thing as loyalty. People, despite everything that marketing departments will tell you, are not loyal to a brand. They choose a brand – for financial reasons, for convenience, for purpose – but never based on anything as obscure as loyalty. Could loyalty have saved Kodak? No. Kodak wasn’t anything that you could be loyal to. It was an industrial processes and manufacturing outfit, it made widgets that went into gizmos where you clicked buttons.
Universities however are full of people, and they can elicit loyalty. However it’s sad to see how little universities around the world grasp that. As they have commoditised their product, they’ve also sort to commoditise their workforce. This is clearly illustrated in the rise of casualisation to the epic proportions we see now. Labour within the university has become increasingly precarious, and more and more teaching is done by people by casualised staff. Because of the nature of their employment these staff aren’t loyal to the institution, in fact they can’t – in order to make a living wage many have to teach across multiple institutions.
Do you think our students are any different? When we have commodified the degree and there is little product differentiation do you think students are going to be loyal to the brand? The only difference in terms of products at the end of the day is the logo printed on the piece of paper that signifies their degree. You will never get people to be loyal to your logo.
Tip 5: Start with your Own People
Universities need to stop fooling themselves that they are a seperate entity in the broader labour market. You cannot bemoan the change in labour conditions and the fact graduates face an uncertain employment future when you are part of that problem!
Universities are still running under the assumption that they are employing labour, and a labour based business can simply improve their efficiencies by outsourcing to a cheaper labour market. Labour in this sense is a simplified concept, yes “labour” is required for the university to function but that term doesn’t reflect what most people within the organisation actually do. What they do is deal with people and information and to do this they required understanding, and understanding requires the development of knowledge. So what our people do looks less like labour and more like knowledge. There is a key difference between knowledge and labour – labour has a static value, but knowledge can grow and change. Knowledge can develop and change organically, labour can’t. The casualisation of university staff treats knowledge as static, robbing it of its very essence in order to make it fit nicely onto someone’s spreadsheet.
Universities have to start changing their own practices. There is a revolution needed in terms of knowledge work. It shouldn’t take the equivalent of Black Lung or mesothelioma in order for you to realise the working conditions in universities are unsustainable. You shouldn’t need suicides to remind you of the strain people are under.
You could have loyalty, but you need something worth being loyal to, and that is your staff and the experience they provide your students and your institution. Rethink what your staff provide you, engage them before engaging a consultant. The thing about knowledge is that if you invest in it, it grows and increases in value. If you have more knowledgable staff, if you treat them with respect and assist their growth then your institution grows in value you too. That’s worthy of loyalty.